It was a call Yan Gomes somewhat anticipated after his name had been floated in trade possibilities. But he was a bit surprised by what Cleveland Indians President Chris Antonetti was saying on the other end of the line around 2 p.m. on Friday. The Indians were trading the veteran catcher, that much made sense to Gomes, but to the Washington Nationals?
The Nationals had just signed Kurt Suzuki, another veteran catcher. They were not one of the teams Gomes, an all-star catcher, saw his name attached to on social media. But Washington is where he will continue his career in 2019, and he’ll do so in a catching tandem that has a lot of potential and, at the moment, no defined plan.
“We didn’t get into any specifics of anything to be honest with you,” Gomes said on a conference call Saturday, when asked whether Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo had laid out how he will be used alongside Suzuki. “It was really welcome to the organization, excited to have me and that’s kind of the conversation we had. I don’t think it’s the time yet to talk about that kind of stuff, but I’m ready to do whatever it is to help the team win. And help the Nationals hopefully take the next step and be World Series contenders.”
The Nationals acquired Gomes late Friday night for a package that included right-handed pitcher Jefry Rodriguez, minor league outfielder Daniel Johnson and a player to be named later. The deal came 11 days after the team signed the 35-year-old Suzuki to a two-year, $10 million contract. Now the Nationals have a welcomed puzzle on their hands: How to utilize two good hitters at a position that gave them limited offensive production last season.
The short and obvious answer, offered by Rizzo and Manager Dave Martinez at the Nationals' annual Winterfest on Saturday, is that Gomes and Suzuki will share time behind the plate. They both are right-handed hitters, meaning the Nationals will not have a natural left-right platoon, and could each benefit from a lighter workload in the back half of their careers. Gomes, 31, made 105 starts at catcher last season and hit .266 with 16 home runs and 48 RBI. Suzuki started 83 games at catcher and finished with a .271 average, 12 homers and 50 RBI. Both their bats will be an upgrade from what the Nationals had at catcher in 2018: a combination of Matt Wieters, Spencer Kieboom and Pedro Severino that struggled to find their rhythm at the plate.
“I spoke with both of them yesterday,” Rizzo said Saturday. “They’re both on board to do whatever it takes to win. After it was announced, I called Kurt in California and explained to him where we’re at. He’s totally on board. Gomes was really excited about coming over.”
But when it came to pinpointing how many games each player could start next season, Rizzo deferred to Martinez and the fluidity of the situation.
“That’ll be a Davey thing. But I think they both should get ample time playing,” Rizzo said. “We could bounce Kurt to play first base a little bit if we have to. But Gomes is a very durable catcher. He’s played every day on a championship-caliber club. And Kurt, they had a great platoon last year in Atlanta. So I think they’re both comfortable, either of them, doing it both ways.”
“They’re both going to split time,” Martinez said. “We’ll get to spring training and I’ll have conversations with them. But they’re both going to play a lot. They both bring a lot. Kurt is a good hitting catcher. Yan had a really good year last year, but he’s a really good defensive catcher, too.”
The current conclusion then, with the season still months away, is that the Nationals have a good problem on their hands. Injecting more power into the catcher’s spot — after Wieters, Kieboom and Severino combined to hit 12 home runs in 627 plate appearances last year — could be even more critical if Bryce Harper’s free agency leads him to another franchise. Gomes smacked 21 home runs in his best season, in 2014, and has combined for 30 the past two seasons. Suzuki has found more power with age, hitting a career-high 19 home runs in 2017 before following that up with a dozen more last season.
Both players also have shown they can still handle around 100 starts in a season, though the physical demands of the position could catch up to them at some point. Suzuki has never played first base in his 12-year career, including a 122-game stint with the Nationals across 2012 and 2013, but Rizzo thinks he may get a few starts there to steal extra at-bats. Gomes is a well-regarded pitch framer and could find a rhythm with certain starters, which could then dictate who the Nationals play day-to-day. The same could happen for Suzuki, whose experience alone makes him a good asset for the Nationals' staff.
“They’re very qualified game callers, and the both have been very successful,” Nationals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist said Saturday. “From watching them from the other side of the field, they’re very fundamentally sound and they obviously contribute offensively. It’s a great addition.”
All the Nationals know now is that catcher is no longer a need as they wade through the free agent and trade markets this winter. They entered the offseason with one or two spots to fill at the position, and wasted no time in firming up their options there. The rest, they figure, should work itself out.
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